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Violin Scam

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A scam in which the mark gives the con artist real money for a worthless item in anticipation of a much larger return in the near future. The trick to this scam is to make the mark believe he knows the "real" value of the item and can thus take advantage of the seller's ignorance. This element helps the scammers avoid running afoul of the law — the mark can't explain what happened without revealing his own greed, and is thus less likely to pursue the matter.

A typical scenario goes like this: One of a pair of con artists (Con 1), posing as a retired violinist, leaves his precious violin as collateral against some small debt, say at a family restaurant, while he goes and fetches the cash. While he's gone, the other con man (Con 2) presents himself to the mark as an rare instrument dealer who just happens to be passing by, showing his business card. He sees the violin case in the restaurant and asks to see it. As soon as he examines it, he's delighted — it's a rare instrument by a famous Italian maker! It's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars! He must have it, but he has a plane to catch and can't wait for the old violinist to return. He says "Dear sir, would you please give him my business card, so I can make him an offer?"

Now the mark has to make a decision. If he's a decent man, he informs the "old violinist" of his good fortune and the scam simply fails, with no risk or loss to any party. If the mark is greedy, however, he might play into their hands. He offers to buy the violin, since the old man (Con 1) clearly has no idea of its actual value. But no, he loves it like a family member and couldn't possibly sell it. The asking price goes up and up until finally he gives in, selling his beloved instrument for ten thousand dollars. The new owner waits a bit, then calls the number on the card. No one answers, of course: the 'dealer' was bogus and the violin worth a few hundred bucks at most. Meanwhile, the conmen meet up to split the take and get another cheap violin.

The expressions "It's a fiddle" or "fiddling" to denote cheating are said to derive from this venerable grift.

A variant is the "lost ring" scam, in which a customer approaches the mark (in this case a store employee or manager) with a ring he claims to have found. The con man's accomplice will then phone the store, anxiously claiming the ring and offering to come directly to the store with a huge reward for its return. If the employee is dishonest, he keeps this information to himself and buys the ring from its finder, gleefully imagining the thousands that will soon be his. Needless to say, the ring is a costume jewelry prop and no reward is forthcoming.


Examples:

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    Films — Live-Action 
  • In a flashback in Zombieland, the girls pull a violin scam with a ring. It goes something like this: At a gas station, Wichita, played by Emma Stone, is rich and pretty and obviously searching for a lost item on the ground. When the station clerk approaches, Wichita explains that she lost her engagement ring, but she's got a plane to catch. She offers to reward him handsomely if he finds it and ships it to her. Later, he sees Little Rock, played by Abigail Breslin, "finding" the ring on the ground. He gives her all the money in his cash register in exchange for the ring. Afterwards, Wichita meets up with Little Rock and it is revealed that they have a bag full of cheap rings just like it.
  • Done in an early scene in the movie Shade (2003). Woman loses ring, promises gas station attendant $1000 to anyone who finds it. Bum finds ring, gas station attendant buys it from bum for $300, bum goes around a few corners and gets into car of woman...
  • Matchstick Men uses two variations, one with a water filtration system (the mark buys it to avoid paying taxes for a nonexistent European vacation), and one with a "winning" lottery ticket.
  • Django Unchained: Dr Schultz pulls a loose version of this when he wants to buy a house slave named Hildie from Calvin Candie, but fears that Candie will extort him for a high price since she's not for sale. To get a better, fairer price, Schultz pretends to have an interest in one of the slaves that Candie does have for sale, an extremely expensive Blood Sport fighter named Eskimo Joe. Schultz says that he needs time to make the necessary arrangements on such a large purchase, but would like to make an impromptu purchase of Hildie right now for the cash he has on him. He's counting on Candie to treat Hildie as an afterthought to the Eskimo Joe sale and give a fair price for her, after which Schultz will retract his interest in Eskimo Joe.
  • Hold Your Man: Eddie pulls the "ring" variant of this scam, with he and the mark finding a supposedly valuable ring in the street, and having it appraised by a supposed pawn shop operator who is actually Eddie's partner.

    Literature 
  • American Gods features a detailed description by the old grifter calling himself Mr. Wednesday. It's a plot point later.
  • In Going Postal, this is mentioned (as part of his Backstory, of course) as one of Moist von Lipwig's ways of keeping in practice. Moist also practices a variation, intended to soothe the suspicions of people who have heard of the common form of the scam: he pretends to be down on his luck, generally trapped in a poor village where he doesn't have ready access to cash, and generously offers to sell a ring to a passer-by for, say, $50, claiming it's worth ten times as much. To assuage the fears of the prospective buyer, they nip down to the local jeweler or smith, except the ring that gets valued isn't the one that gets sold, because Moist is very good at sleight of hand.
  • In The Kingkiller Chronicle novel The Wise Man's Fear, Denna's foolish boyfriend Geoffrey falls for a variant known as "the weeping widow". In this variant, a woman stands weeping outside a pawnshop and when questioned by an apparent Good Samaritan claims that the man who was helping her sell her valuable wedding ring pawned it for a fraction of its value and ran off with the money. The woman and the "Good Samaritan" agree to meet the following day at noon to get the ring out of hock and sell it together. Usually, the "Good Samaritan" buys the ring on his own before the woman comes back, and the woman and her accomplice the pawnbroker spilt the money. Geoffrey, however, was one of those rare men who show up right on time. Denna, who has run this con herself, finds it dishonorable of her fellow conwoman to keep a decent guy's money.
  • Holly Black's White Cat has a variation of this involving a white cat. Cassel needs to get a cat out of a shelter. He's under 18 and can't just adopt it, so his friend comes into the shelter claiming her expensive white cat is lost and offering a huge reward. Cassel then goes in and claims he has the missing cat, but will need a white cat for his little sister as a replacement. The shelter worker, thinking of the huge reward, is willing to skip the background check and give Cassel the cat, expecting Cassel to return later with the "missing" cat.
  • The Footprints on the Ceiling: a minor character turned out to have quite the reputation for a variant of this scam. He would go into a small town, acting like a businessman from the big city, then "lose his custom-made glass eye"note  in a shop. Later that day, an accomplice would "find" a glass eye there, the shopowner would buy the eye expecting to get a huge reward from the businessman, then find the businessman had vanished from his hotel.
  • Played with in An African Millionaire by Grant Allen. The scam revolves around a pair of diamond cufflinks, owned by a man who says that they've been valued and found to be faux diamonds; the mark, a diamond magnate, can see that they're the real thing, and what's more they're a distinctive cut that shows they're part of a historical set of which he already owns all but two. He tries to buy them, and of course it turns out they have sentimental value and the owner is reluctant to part with them, and the price keeps going up, until he pays a price that's significantly overvalued for a pair of faux diamonds, but still well under their real value if they're genuine — and he's certain they are genuine, and has been careful to ensure they haven't been swapped out for fakes at any point. Triumphantly, he bears them home to reunite them with the rest of the set... and learns that two of the diamonds he already owned were stolen shortly before he first met the man with the cufflinks.
  • In Spoonbenders, Teddy and Archibald having made what is essentially a toy gun and convinces Destin Smalls to buy and manufacture it for psychic warfare, claiming that it uses science to take away a psychic's powers. Considering it actually can suppress psychic powers using the power of suggestion, there is a nugget of authenticity to it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Hustle has featured a variation on this known as "dog in a bar," where a supposedly valuable dog stands in for the violin (the clip can be found on the BBC's YouTube channel here). The song "Can't Con An Honest John" by The Streets details the same dog-in-a-bar variation.
  • Leverage:
    • A variation with horses - although they had to actually steal a good one to demonstrate the speed. Then they just swapped it out for a similar-looking but much less valuable animal and trusted the man wouldn't notice. And of course the ultimate object of the con wasn't to steal his money, but have him accused of insurance fraud.
    • In "The Studio Job", the team refers to the con as a fiddle game, which confuses Parker and she keeps asking where the fiddle comes in. When she finally understands, she says "Oh, Eliot's the fiddle!".
    • Later in the season, in "The Underground Job," they discuss running a fiddle game again. This time they plan to sell a corrupt mine owner that the mine has something valuable in it and sell him a process to obtain it.
      Parker: Is Eliot gonna be the fiddle again?
      Nate and Sophie: No.
      Parker: Can I be the fiddle?
      Nate and Sophie: No.
  • A variant was done in Only Fools and Horses episode "Cash and Curry" where the conmen were of Indian descent and the supposedly valuable object was a statue of a Hindu god. The con was played with a variation, where the two conmen claimed that they were unable to talk to each other because they were of different castes; and of course, the episode ended with a thoroughly Anvilicious scene where the conmen pointed out that only a prejudiced person attempting to swindle clueless immigrants would fall for such a scam.
  • Lovejoy:
    • One episode was spent modifying a motorbike to convince a collector that it was the one T. E. Lawrence had been riding when he died. Varied chiefly in that the "authenticating expert" role was left to the mark himself to play: all the "evidence" was circumstantial and never mentioned explicitly by the cons, and in some cases (a bent handlebar, a rattle in the gas tank), they even tried to hide it for fear of devaluing the bike - which, in a smaller variation, was not completely worthless on its own merit, just not worth quite so much.
    • An earlier episode featured a Greek antiques dealer (played by BRIAN BLESSED!) who conned a Japanese business man into purchasing a Satsuma tea-bowl for millions. The tea-bowl was authentic, but the provenance stating that the bowl was once owned by Emperor Hirohito and that the Emperor had drunk from it just before signing the Armistice that ended World War II was forged. Lovejoy and the businessman (along with a wealthy and attractive American widow whom BRIAN BLESSED had scammed earlier) got back at him with an elaborate scam involving a forgery of a Russian religious icon (a market the mark was attempting to corner) that the businessman had in his possession, complete with an authenticating expert, and a trick where Lovejoy hand-sewed two bags, one for the fake icon and one for the real icon, from antique velvet spritzed with incense (so it would smell like it had been left inside a Russian church for decades) and sprinkled the interiors of the bags with paint chips from destroyed antique paintings so they could provide the mark with all the "paint samples" he would require to authenticate the icon.
  • In Another Midnight Run, a Made-for-TV Movie based on the original Midnight Run film as part of the Action Pack, a pair of grifters Jack is trying to bring in use the wedding ring variation to score some cash in order to buy a car when they and Jack are stranded in a small town. The male of the two narrates the ploy to Jack while she sets up the marks, telling them she lost her ring. He explains that the heart of the con is the greedy nature of the mark. "You can't cheat an honest man."
  • Sanford and Son: This occurs in the "Pot Luck" episode, involving a chamber pot that Lamont buys from a woman for $20, with Mr. Osborne her husband confronting Lamont, offering to buy it back. Since it has the crest of the Prince of Wales as its insignia, Lamont offers Mr. Osborne a buy-back price of $200. Later, Mr. Bonnet pronounced "Bone-NAY" offers Lamont $900 for the chamber pot. Lamont paid $300 to buy the chamber pot from Mr. Osborne, only to learn that Osborne and Bonnet are in cahoots, with Bonnet using a McDonald's number as his business phone, Osborne has been playing an outraged husband, and antique dealer Mr. Bonnet offering top dollar. When Fred brought the chamber pot to a legitimate antiques dealer, learning that the scammers have been hustling inexpensive knockoffs around town, they've already left town, their check is no good, and Lamont has been conned, left with only a cheap chamber pot and its storage cabinet.
  • Better Call Saul reveals that this was one of many cons Jimmy McGill (Saul Goodman) could pull off before trying to go on the straight and narrow with his legal career.
    • He and some random mark he'd been chatting with in a bar would find a drunk (actually Jimmy's friend Marco, pretending to be drunk) passed out in the alley with a fancy suit and a (fake) Rolex. Jimmy would egg the mark into stealing Marco's wallet, which had a couple hundred bucks inside. Then Jimmy "notices" the "valuable" Rolex and eagerly steals it for himself, telling the mark he can keep the chump change in the wallet. The mark would then offer Jimmy the wallet plus all of his own cash in exchange for the actually worthless watch. Jimmy and Marco, naturally, have a bunch more of those fake watches at home. During a montage in the episode "Marco," where Jimmy and Marco go on a week of scamming people, the two appear to pull this scam off with the conventional violin.
    • In the same episode, they pull this off with an allegedly rare coin, with some alterations: here, the seller appears to be pulling a con by raving about how rare and valuable the coin is because he needs the money fast, while his friend rolls his eyes and wonders aloud to the mark "he's having me on, isn't he?" While the seller uses the toilet, the other con man goes through the motions of calling someone to confirm that the coin is fake, only to express pleasant surprise and shock. When the seller comes back, his friend attempts to buy the coin, but doesn't quite have enough money on him. At this point, the mark, having overhead all of this, fronts the required amount of money and leaves smugly, ignoring the angry cries of the other con man at cutting in on this great deal.
  • In The Nanny episode "I'm Pregnant," Niles uses his life savings to buy C.C.'s old BMW. He tries to get his money back when he finds out the car isn't quite in the condition C.C. described. She refuses. Soon afterward, a man approaches C.C. at the Sheffields' front door and asks who owns the BMW at the curb. When she says she sold it to a friend, the man tells her that he's a BMW collector and will double what the friend paid for it. C.C. takes his card and goes inside, where she tells Niles she feels bad for taking his life savings and cuts him a check. As soon as she's out of sight, Niles opens the front door and passes the "BMW collector" a folded bill.
  • In an episode of CSI: NY, a young woman disguised as an old man, is murdered in a train at rush hour. The investigation finds out she's the daughter of an infamous scam artist, and was engaged, but her fiance not knowing of her past is ruled out as a suspect. The investigation uncovers victims who would trust the kindly "old man" by giving him all the cash they had on them in exchange of a greater sum, only for the "old man" to never come back. Eventually they find the real killer, her ex-boyfriend who tells the CSIs what happened. They had been dating for several months when she talked him into scamming two regular customers at the bar she worked at, but the following day she told him that the scam fell through, and they were demanding several thousand dollars or they would kill her. To save her life he emptied his bank account, cashed in his insurance, sold his truck, and even convinced his brother to sell his car. After he gave her the money, he never saw or heard from her again, and the men that demanded the money were just some random customers who knew nothing of a scam. Some time later, he was on the train when he smelled her perfume, saw a lock of hair coming out of her mask, and recognized the old cigar box she always carried around. As they fought in the middle of the crowded subway he killed her in the scuffle.
  • M*A*S*H: "Dear Ma": When a patient is leaving on the evac bus, he begs B.J. to buy his "$150" watch, which the good doctor eventually capitulates to for $20. When bragging to Hawkeye, Hawkeye quickly guesses his friend was scammed when he hears of the deal. BJ opens the back of the watch and finds it empty. As luck would have it, that patient ends up back at the 4077 under B.J.'s knife after the bus was attacked.

    Oral Tradition 
  • An old joke/urban legend about an antique dealer, a cat, a saucer, and a greedy customer involves this. The customer is shopping in a crowded antique store. He sees the store cat eating from a saucer, and recognizes the saucer as a very valuable example of Ming porcelain. Assuming the dealer doesn't know what it is, he offers to buy the saucer for $5.00. The dealer declines. The next day, the customer comes back, and this time, offers to buy the cat, offering a much higher price. The dealer agrees, and as the customer is leaving with his new cat, he says "I expect he's used to eating out of that saucer. Let me take it as well." The dealer replies "Give you that saucer? Never! Do you have any idea how many cats I've sold with that saucer?"

    Video Games 
  • This scam is quite possible in EVE Online and it does not even have to be a two man con. First you have to find a cheap item with a very low supply in a market and buy the majority of them. Once you cleaned the market, create a buy order with very high prices and sell your goods in a different system with slightly lower prices (preferably with a different account). It looks like easy money for the prey: buy the goods, move them to other system and sell them for higher prices. Of course you will cancel your buy order before he can sell them back. Tricky part is finding the right violin.
  • This is also possible in Final Fantasy XI, thanks to its variety of market outlets. But note that, since a large number of players watch the auction houses like hawks, they will probably cry foul and refuse to be conned.
  • The marketplace on Final Fantasy XIV is cutthroat where some items can be worth more than a house in-game, and the practice of undercutting (posting a product for sale just slightly cheaper than the currently cheapest one in order to appear at the top of the list) is quite widespread. Some sellers will monitor their products for sale constantly and when they notice an undercutter they'll lower their cost and undercut the undercutter, getting into a bidding war and massively lowering the price. Some sellers lose their patience and end up buying the other seller's product just to get rid of them and put both for sale at a higher price point to make a profit again. However, it's not uncommon for the other seller to be sitting on a stock of product and immediately undercut the first seller again, dumping their stock on an unwary merchant.
  • Pulled more-or-less literally on you in Summoner 2, with a different instrument. You can either walk away with the loan interest and not fall further into the scam, or follow the scam to its conclusion and end up with a magic ring.
  • This happens quite often in World of Warcraft. Typically it is a single con man in this case, but it requires either 2 separate characters or 2 separate accounts (separate accounts make it more convincing). On one account/character, he posts an item on the auction house for significantly more than it's worth. On the other account/character, he says in trade "WTB " for twice the amount that he posted it for on the auction house. The unsuspecting mark will buy the item on the auction house (paying way more than it's worth), then when he turns around to sell it to the person in trade, he finds they're gone.
  • Handled offscreen in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous; the Thiefling's ledgers point out that a thiefling bought an antique violin for 10 gold, worth an apparent fortune. It appraised for five gold at the end of the day. The exasperated Thiefling leader vows never to send that Thiefling out on her own again.

    Western Animation 
  • An amusing variation happened in Top Cat: a pair of con artists trick an immigrant hot dog vendor from the neighborhood into buying worthless stocks in a floundering Nova Scotia oil company. T.C. then tricks the scammers into thinking he's a Texan millionaire. While they are meeting in his "office" (the alley, only spruced up), T.C. leaves for a moment only for the "teletype" (the output of which actually comes from Benny hiding under a table with a typewriter) to state that the well struck oil and the value of the shares skyrocketed. The scammers then rush to the hot dog vendor and buy back the shares at triple the price. In other words T.C. managed to pull the violin scam for a worthless item the marks had previously owned!

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